CHERRY HILL - Arthur Aston shared a simple message when he spoke at a a disability awareness presentation at Cherry Hill East a year ago.
"Everyone of every ability, when given the opportunity, can achieve their goals."
It was clear after the visit, the Camden County NJ Miracle League manager's message hit a home run with East juniors Joe Levin and Holly Seybold.
The presentation inspired 17-year-old Levin and 16-year-old Seybold to volunteer for the Miracle League, a program that provides people with disabilities a chance to participate in America's favorite pastime — baseball.
The league is part of Build Jake's Place — a nonprofit dedicated to building playgrounds where both abled and disabled children can play. The league is sponsored, in part, by the Camden County Board of Freeholders and Forman Mills. Any player aged 5 and up can play.
The teens signed up to be buddies — able-bodied partners who assist players in hitting the ball, running the bases, and protecting them in the field — for the fall 2015 Miracle League season.
"I love how unique the concept of Miracle League is," Levin said. "Not only do I get to help disabled children and adults pursue their passion of baseball, but I get to see their faces light up as a result of my volunteer work, which is priceless."
Levin and Seybold were able to round up a group of about 20 friends from school to volunteer with them during the fall season, but wanted to open up Miracle League to a much wider audience. After several months of passing the idea of the Cherry Hill East Miracle League Buddies Club through several levels of school administration, they finally got the club approved in early April and were able to spread the word about the league to other East students.
More than 90 East students showed up to the club's first meeting, signing up to be buddies. "People were spilling out into the hallways," said Levin, who didn't expect the huge turnout.
This year, the Miracle League held the spring season opener April 30 at Boundless Field, next to Jake's Place Playground at Challenge Grove Park. Levin, Seybold and several other Buddies Club members took the field to assist the players. Seybold said her favorite thing about the club is attending the games.
"I love interacting with the players and forming bonds with them. I enjoy seeing how happy the players are during the game."
"Some of the players rarely get to throw or hit a baseball because of their conditions," Levin added. "The feeling I get from holding a player's arm to help them throw or gripping a bat with them to help them hit really is indescribable. Seeing their faces light up is a reminder that taking the time to participate in Miracle League every Saturday can go a long way."
While the players are the most integral part of the game, Aston says the buddies are just as important.
"With our buddies assisting the players, the parents are able to sit in the stands and cheer on their player."
Aston was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that has impacted his ability to walk. He uses leg braces and crutches for short distances, especially around the field where he cheers on the players of his league. For longer distances, he travels with a manual wheelchair.
Aston has been working with Build Jake's Place as a volunteer since 2010. In 2013, he was hired as executive director of the organization.
During fundraising for the playground, volunteers were told that accessible playgrounds often are accompanied by Miracle Fields. Camden County's Boundless Field, the barrier-free field on which Miracle League plays, is a handicap-accessible field that accommodates players who use wheelchairs and various walking assistance devices.
The U.S. Census shows there are about 12,000 people with disabilities in Camden County. Seventy players are registered in the league.
"I think the Camden County New Jersey Miracle League is a very important addition to the South Jersey community as a whole and especially for those who have disabilities. Our league is unique in that it allows males and females, children and adults to all play," Aston said.
Aston calls Levin, Seybold and the other buddies game-changers.
"They are dependable and well respected among their peers."
To play ball, or become a buddy, show up any Saturday morning in the spring or fall at Boundless Field or visit the Camden County NJ Miracle League website at www.ccnjml.org or call (856) 662-4418.
Written by: Matt Flowers: (856) 486-2913; firstname.lastname@example.org of the Courier Post